Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton) Vietnam War Memorial

Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton) is a vestige of the Indochina wars that raged for several decades in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. However, Hoa Lo Prison was initially set up as a French colonial prison to hold advocates for Vietnamese independence. Ironically, after the defeat of the French, the prison was used by the North Vietnamese to hold American prisoners of war (POWs) during the second Indochina war. During the American War, Hoa Lo Prison became known colloquially as the Hanoi Hilton.

Ineffective US Antiwar Movement

The 2nd Indochina War lasted for nearly 20 years. The extensive duration was because half the population was at home watching the Ed Sullivan show and the other half was enjoying the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle. As a result, there was much indecision and confusion among the electorate back in the US.

Unfortunately the anti-war movement would be further distracted by the invention of the birth control pill in 1960. The fact is that most Americans had no idea what the purpose of the Vietnam War was and probably could not locate Vietnam on a map.

Unsurprisingly, in the end it turned out that the whole thing was based on a fallacy. 30 years later, a very similar scenario would again play out with the US invasion of Iraq.

History of the French at Hoa Lo Prison

Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton) Hanoi Vietnam
Photo of the upper level of Hoa Lo Prison where the Vietnamese Independence fighters were held during the French occupation.

Originally, the Hoa Lo Prison was constructed by the French colonists in the mid-19th century to hold insurrectionists who obstructed French rule.

The French referred to it as “Maison Centrale” which translates as central house. However, Hoa Lo translates as “hell hole” in Vietnamese. The name is an appropriate metaphor because the prison was constructed in a district that sold furnaces.

French Gulliotine at Hoa Lo Prison Hanoi Vietnam
This guillotine was installed by the French at Hoa Lo Prison and they used it regularly to carry out executions.
French Gulliotine Hoa Lo Prison Hanoi Vietnam
Vietnamese victims of decapitations conducted by the French colonists.

Sub human conditions of the prison had become a symbol of French colonial exploitation. As a result, the long standing enmity of the Vietnamese against their colonial masters would eventually result in their expulsion from Vietnam.

The resounding defeat of the French military at Dien Bien Phu would be the final blow to French colonial aspirations in Vietnam. Unfortunately, Hoa Lo Prison would need to be reopened a short time later to hold POWs from the US military.

Photo Dien Bien Phu Street Sign in Hanoi Vietnam
Street sign in Hanoi commemorating the battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Why is Hoa Lo Prison called Hanoi Hilton?

Hoa Lo Prison was colloquially referred to by US POWs as the “Hanoi Hilton”. Additionally, the US POWs named other outbuildings at the prison after hotels located on the Las Vegas strip. Therefore, names like “Stardust” and “Desert Inn” were also commonly used.

Apparently, the American heroes were very familiar with the Las Vegas Strip due to their US Air Force training facility being located nearby.

Hoa Lo Prison Memorial Hanoi Vietnam
Photos of courtyard memorial at the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi.

The US POWs were not ground troops but were instead pilots that were instrumental in the US carpet bombing campaigns. However, the North Vietnamese Army had very limited means of self defense against B-52 bombers. Nonetheless, even with very limited antiaircraft firepower, they would occasionally manage to shoot down US aircraft.

Unfortunately, the US carpet bombing would spread far beyond the borders of Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia.

Vestiges of the Vietnam War

B52 bomber wreckage Huu Tiep lake in Hanoi Vietnam
B52 bomber wreckage found on Huu Tiep Lake in Hanoi Vietnam
B52 bomber wreckage Huu Tiep lake - Hanoi Vietnam
Historical information placed on a plaque near the B52 crash site at Huu Tiep Lake in Hanoi.

Vietnam Military History Museum

vietnam military history museum
Aircraft wreckage memorial located in the courtyard of the Vietnam Military History Museum in Hanoi.

Finally, in 1975 the US Military surrendered and would follow in the footsteps of the French colonialists. The north and the south were unified under the Communist Administration of Ho Chi Minh and the capital city was moved to Hanoi. Additionally, Saigon the former capital city of South Vietnam was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

vietnam military history museum

vietnam military history museum

The remnants of the American War are also evident at other historical sites in Vietnam. Another location in Hanoi I wanted to visit was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Unfortunately, it was under renovation for a month and I was not able to enter the facility.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Hanoi Vietnam
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is another important vestige of the Indochina wars in Hanoi.

Additional resources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%E1%BB%8Fa_L%C3%B2_Prison
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/health/a-brief-history-of-the-birth-control-pill/480/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ho_Chi_Minh_Mausoleum